Former EU parliament president Martin Schulz to stand against Merkel

President of EU Parliament Martin Schulz with now jailed Kurdish leader Demirtas and HDP MPs during a visit to European Parliament.

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Germany’s Social Democrats unexpectedly named former European Parliament chief Martin Schulz as their candidate for the chancellorship on Tuesday, raising the stakes in a September election that promises to be Angela Merkel’s toughest yet.

The announcement came after SPD party leader and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel surprised observers by saying he would step aside to make room for Schulz, conceding that his own chances of victory were dismal.

Schulz is “the better candidate with better chances” of success on September 24, Gabriel told reporters in Berlin after a meeting of the party leadership.

“He is someone who can build bridges, who can bring people together,” Gabriel said, adding that Schulz would also replace him as SPD leader.

The 61-year-old Schulz, who only last week ended a five-year stint as speaker of the European Parliament, said at the same press conference that he accepted the nomination “with pride and humility”.

His candidacy still needs to be formally approved in a party vote on Sunday, considered a mere formality.

Although Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc enjoys a comfortable lead over the Social Democrats, recent surveys show that Schulz, a household name in Germany, rivals Merkel’s popularity on a personal level.

His entry into the race could prove a headache for the chancellor at a time when her party is already under pressure from the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has capitalised on anger over her liberal refugee policy.

Polls currently show that Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are the top pick for the national election with around 37 percent support.

They are followed at a distance by the SPD with about 20 percent, weakened by their lacklustre years as the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government.

The insurgent AfD meanwhile is polling at around 15 percent.

– Survival of party –

Schulz’s nomination marks a stunning return home for the EU veteran, who announced two months ago that he was quitting Brussels to re-enter German politics.

Despite his years of absence, the former bookseller always remained a well-liked figure in Germany, frequently appearing in the media while staying above the fray of daily domestic politics.

Setting the tone for his candidacy, Schulz said on Tuesday: “With me, there will be no Europe bashing. There will be no hounding of minorities.”

Gabriel, who has led the SPD since 2009 and is also the country’s economy minister, has seen his popularity plummet in recent years, with critics saying he never presented a viable alternative to Merkel, who took power in 2005.

But after making way for Schulz, Gabriel will not fade from the limelight.

The 57-year-old on Tuesday said the party had chosen him to replace Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister, who is expected to be elected German president next month.

Party sources told German news agency DPA that Brigitte Zypries, a former justice minister, would take over the economy brief.

Merkel, 62, announced in November that she would seek a fourth term at the helm of Europe’s top economy.

She has said the upcoming election would be “more difficult” than any other she has contested, in a nod to the opposition against her refugee stance that dealt her party a series of setbacks in regional polls last year.

But her popularity has bounced back as voters look to a safe pair of hands in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president.

She has also been buoyed by steady economic growth, low unemployment and a dearth of viable challengers within her own party.

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